- The Washington Times - Monday, September 29, 2008

MINSK, Belarus (AP) - Parliamentary elections in Belarus that shut out the opposition fell short of democratic standards despite the authoritarian president’s promise to play by Western rules, the U.S. and international observers said Monday.

None of the 70 opposition candidates won places in the 110-seat parliament, according to the elections commission. Opposition leaders called Sunday’s vote a farce and urged the West not to recognize the results.

President Alexander Lukashenko, sometimes called Europe’s last dictator, had promised free and fair elections in the former Soviet republic after he barred the opposition from the last election four years ago.

But observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the election was conducted in a “strictly controlled environment with a barely visible campaign,” and they raised serious questions about the vote count.

“Promises to ensure the transparency of the vote count were not implemented,” the OSCE monitors said. “The count was assessed as bad or very bad in 48 percent of polling stations visited.”

Mr. Lukashenko, a close ally of Russia, has been in power since 1994. He has quashed independent media, squeezed opposition groups and run the nation of 10 million with a Soviet-style command economy.

But recently he tried to improve relations with the West, which has slapped sanctions on government figures and key industries. He cast the elections as a big step toward democracy, allowing the opposition to run and welcoming hundreds of foreign observers.

His overtures appear to reflect concern about reliance on Russia, which has cut the subsidized oil and gas exports that have helped keep the Belarusian economy afloat and boosted the president’s popularity.

Belarusian election officials insisted the election was free and fair.

“The opposition has gone out of fashion,” Central Election Commission chief Lidiya Yermoshina said.

However, State Department spokesman Robert Wood said the election was well short of international standards. The United States has said it would evaluate the vote before considering steps to improve relations.

Mr. Lukashenko’s opponents had said the campaign was unfair and warned that widespread early voting could lead to widespread fraud. Early voting began last Tuesday, and more than a quarter of the roughly 7 million eligible voters cast their ballots before Sunday.

Opposition leaders said that gave the authorities ample opportunity to tamper with ballots. They also protested being kept off district electoral commissions that counted the votes.

“This was not an election but a farce,” said Anatoly Lebedko, leader of the opposition United Civil Front.

Alexander Milinkevich, an influential opposition leader who challenged the authoritarian president in the last presidential vote in 2006, said he fears “a new round of confrontation” with the West

“Lukashenko has shown that he … wants to play only by his own rules,” he said.

Rights activists worried the election could lead to a new crackdown on government opponents.

“I’m afraid that the holiday of democracy is over and Lukashenko will renew repression against the opposition with new force,” said Oleg Gusak, leader of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee.

Mr. Lukashenko’s supporters, particularly the elderly, credit him with maintaining stability and preventing major economic calamity following the 1991 Soviet collapse.

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